Museums join in hope of unifying city’s black, Latino communities

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Left to right: Felipe Luciano, Perri Irmer and Billy Ocasio. Provided photos.

African American and Latino relations.

It’s long been the elephant in the living room; in Chicago, manifesting in unspoken tension over jobs and city contracts as one population increased, and the other decreased.

Nationally, it’s played out in the relative silence of many African Americans on immigration reform, a hot-button issue for Latinos; and in the similar relative silence of many Latinos on police brutality, a hot-button issue for African Americans.

Two Chicago museums and a major foundation are joining forces to wrestle with that elephant, in a town hall Thursday, titled: “Straight Talk: Black/Brown Unity in a Changing America.”

“A few of us have moved between both communities, and have worked on many, many issues, trying to bring people together and effect change for both communities. But there have just been so many headlines and so many things that have kept us apart,” says Billy Ocasio, CEO of the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture, partnering with the DuSable Museum of African American History on the groundbreaking initiative.

“When Harold Washington ran for mayor, there was a common interest, a common theme that brought us together, and that was ‘moving forward,'” recalls Ocasio, a former Chicago alderman. “That’s been lost for decades now, and it’s time for our communities to come together and talk about how do we bridge that gap? The only way to do that is to understand where we are today, our commonalities.”

Washington won that 1983 election with 98 percent of the African American vote; 56.7 percent of the Latino vote; and 17 percent of the white vote.

Conversely, when a Latino candidate forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel into an unprecedented run-off last year, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia could not coalesce African-American-Latino unity, garnering 44.3 percent of the vote to Emanuel’s winning 55.7%.

The 2010 Census placed Chicago’s African-American and Latino populations at 33 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

Sponsored by the Chicago Community Trust, the Thursday night event is the first in recent years to bring leaders of both communities together in an effort to address a rift called real by some, imagined, by others. It’s being held at DuSable, 740 E. 56th Pl.

“It’s time, because the black and brown communities‚ we’re all suffering, not in the same ways, but by the same root causes, and it’s something we need to communicate to ourselves and to the majority,” says Perri Irmer, President/CEO of DuSable.

Organizers say the event is spurred, in part, by a political climate that has seen a presidential candidate denigrate Latino immigrants early in the campaign, which was viewed by some as someone else’s problem — until other groups became his target.

“When you look at the way a candidate started a campaign for the highest office in the land by insulting and degrading Mexicans and Latinos, now women, and black people, and the handicapped, and Muslims, it just goes on and on,” says Irmer.

“Black people are involuntary immigrants. We were forced here. And yet, our stories, our experiences can be reflected in the stories of any other group, to an extent,” she says. “While the black community has suffered in different ways and deeper ways and continues to suffer, it’s still the same root cause targeting Mexican immigrants, Muslims, others. Pain is pain. Racism is racism. And discrimination is discrimination.

The town hall, which organizers says also is triggered by the city’s out-of-control violence in African American and Latino communities, will be led by nationally known, Puerto Rican civil rights activist and author Felipe Luciano.

“I have traveled to and fro in this nation arguing with, cajoling with and pleading with both communities for the necessity of a united front that goes beyond simple politics, beyond tolerance, to the necessity of being family,” says Luciano, an expert in Latino/African American multiculturalism.

Luciano was an original member of the Last Poets, the black power era artists mentored by literary icon Amiri Baraka, whose politically charged live-music and spoken word poetry performances in the ’60s prefigured ’70s hip hop and rap. He also led New York’s Young Lords Party, Puerto Rican counterpart to the Black Panther Party founded in 60s Chicago; and is an Emmy Award-winning former radio and TV talk show host.

“We will discuss on Thursday the realities, the romance, the possibilities and the prayer for unification that’s so desperately needed now between the two communities. The legacy we leave behind has to be directed to our youth. Whether we’ve gotten it together or not isn’t important. What is important is that our children have a fighting chance for survival,” he says.

For more information, visit DuSable’s website.

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